Why embracing your purpose is paramount to design the life you aspire
A personal narrative. In color.
This is November, the year 2000. The internet was still in its infancy, and I was obsessed with downloading free music online. The world had survived the Millenium bug, and the Twin Towers were still among the tallest skyscrapers in the world — for a short while.
I’m at this interview for a job at a consultancy that worked with corporate social responsibility for so-called conscious brands. I’m invited to enter the founder’s office. I sit down, as he quietly skims through my resume. He gently sets it aside, and while staring me in the eyes, he asks:
‘Our work is atypical. Not many people knock on our door wanting a job here. Why are you here?’
I am 20, a little over one year into college — barely know anything about work or life for that matter. In a split second, a stream of thoughts rushes through my mind: Wow, what an unusual way to start an interview; I didn’t see this one coming; He’s really starring me in the eyes; What am I’m going to say?
I try to keep my cool barely enough and let out the first thing that comes to mind. I answer:
'I’m a nonconformist.'
It took me almost two decades to fully comprehend what I meant with my own answer that day. The recollection of that interview percolated through my mind endlessly since then. Every time I would (re)examine it, I would see it through a different color depending on the circumstance I was faced with in life.
I spent the vast majority of my professional life unhappy, dissatisfied. It started out when I got into college, and quickly it grew into this large puzzle which pieces seemed to be spread out everywhere. I couldn’t even begin to separate the edges of the picture I was trying to put together, let alone the different tonalities that usually help group the ones that go along.
Outwardly facing, I was lost. Inwardly, I was burning with an incessant question of what I was meant to do on this planet during the slim window of my life on it.
Very early on I detected that there were deep ties between the early choices I had made in life and those ‘suggested’ to me by my parents. It was only natural that being their son, I'd tried to emulate the two most significant role models I had, even if subconsciously. However, I quickly noticed an expanding rupture in trying to please them to the detriment of pleasing myself.
Until I was around 25, it made total sense just to follow their advice. It was reasonable for me to stick to their reasoning. Take their suggestions, make their ideas my ideas and their views of the world as my views. Their opinions would be the principles of my life. In hindsight, I was in a stage in my early adulthood where my sense of self-worth stemmed from being accepted — by them, and by others as well. Hence, it made all the sense in the world to go after what my parents so lovingly advised me to get.
Gradually, I collected the first pieces of the puzzle, and the picture I began to see was not a pretty one.
A first alarm bell rang within me when I was 27. I rapidly quit my job at the time to pursue something ‘more aligned with my style’. Not long after, however, the same bell rang again, when I was 29. Another change. It hit me back at 31. At this point, I had grown apprehensive about the destination I was headed.
It had become a snowball inside of me. At 32, I flirted with a breakdown. I realized that despite the insane energy I invested to put my life on track, all I saw was the same miserable picture. Up until this time, I had not been able to feel like I was worthy of something. I didn't know what my potential was, not could see how it could contribute to the world — while generating my own wealth.
My friends had started to get married. Some of them had their first kids. Most of them were doing significantly well — whether they were happy or not is another question — but I felt the beginning of loneliness, of not belonging anymore. What stung me the deepest was the realization that during ten years of my own arbitration of my life, I still felt desolated and disconnected with myself. Worse, I was still lost.
Today, after two career changes, changes in cities, countries, and networks, I’m finally where I can call home.
It is a place where I’m in sync with myself — no matter where I am. I experience a whole alignment between the person I am and the work I do. It feels as if my past coherently chords my present, like a finely tuned instrument, where I no longer fear the future. It is as if my life is a film I don’t want to end. Selflessness, effortlessness, timelessness. I’m in flow.
And, interestingly, I never got that job.
The pursuit of integrity
What you just read is the trajectory of a client towards enacting his life purpose. It is not an easy one, it is certainly not pretty; it is far from being the promised land. In fact, it's painful, and it can be way more challenging than this particular story. It does not entail happiness, but it offers the possibility of living with integrity.
We seem to be living a purpose hype these days — or these years. Purpose has gone mainstream, from brands to artists to so-called “experts” in coming up with the “right” definitions for what purpose really means, or reasons why you should have one.
During my Masters in New York City, I researched the concept of Purpose applied to organizational contexts quite extensively, and migrated from that to Life Purpose in my work with individuals. In my view, there are three main things I would highlight that might make you ponder about what Life Purpose is, and hopefully inspire an inquiry about what yours is.
1) Life Purpose is not a destination, but a compass.
Although I just framed the story above as a trajectory towards Life Purpose, it does not mean that Life Purpose is a destination. This is a flawed perception most of us have, usually because we tend to see our lives as a natural sequence of events and experiences based on the notion of linearity.
An aspect that reinforces this way of thinking the fact that most of us are born and raised following a typical — and gradual — sequence: we go to preschool, then elementary school, and high school; then we go to college, and then work pretty much until the end of our lives. Until we are in our early twenties, we pretty much follow a very predictable track.
During this phase, we make several important decisions, some of which with high influence of others —namely our parents, family, or friends. Yet, our maturity level is not as refined as it will later be, so our understanding of ourselves (and about the world) is minimal. As a result, we end up following many pre-established ideas without necessarily knowing how to tap into our cores and ask what is something I would die for — and live for it.
It’s only reasonable that one would expect to find his/her purpose at some point in this journey. Still, I choose to work with the notion that Life Purpose is much more of a compass than a fixed point that you reach and everything is solved.
I'm not talking about a map, but an instrument that points you toward the direction that your mind, heart, and gut aligned take you. In other words, it's the direction that your soul signals to you. Your life purpose is inside of you, it has been developed within you.
Unveiling your purpose can happen at any point in your life. There’s not a required sequence of steps, experiences or events that need to happen first before you can discover your it, as long as you stay curious and open to exploring the spaces through your Ego.
2) Unveiling your Life Purpose is not finding happiness
At least, not immediately. In the story above, you saw the arduous trajectory of someone until he began putting the pieces of his puzzle together and getting a picture of what his life purpose looked like. However, it does not end there.
A lot of times, individuals may very well come to understand what their life purpose is, but embracing it is an entirely different game. In another example, someone used to be an attorney in Australia. He followed this career until his early thirties, reaching considerable success and setting himself up as a natural successor in his firm. But inside, he was miserable.
Turned out that he finally understood that in fact, he wanted to be something completely different. He wanted to be a singer in a rock and roll band.
Not everyone would have the courage to pursue this magnitude of change. It is a major one. In the spectrum of alternative futures, this specific one would lie within what is possible, but certainly not plausible, let alone probable, given his life’s trajectory until that point.
Pursuing your life purpose can be very much like a restart. And once you have reached certain standards in life, restarting can be really painful — and risky. You might quit your job, make less money, and have to give up on certain luxuries. What you get, though, is a sense of inner coherence that is priceless. While happiness could be down the road, joy, instead, is what’s really being experienced.
3) Life Purpose is comprised of four main pieces
All the purpose hype gets me particularly excited about because it shows that our time is demanding that we pause to think about our doings, rather than just compulsively doing things.
A quick Google search will reveal several purpose definitions and models out there that represent what Life Purpose is. I opt for what is known as Ikigai — the Japanese term for “sweet spot”.
It is the beautiful overlap of your passion, vocation, mission, and profession. There are nuances to these terms, and understanding them fully is about inquiring yourself on four different domains of your life:
- What you love
- What you are good at
- What you are paid for
- What the world needs
This inquiry is mostly a self-investigation in which you dissect your past and present. It is about looking back into the things that you used to do as a kid that would make you lose the track of time, as well as pairing those with the things you do today that get people to pay you for, for example.
In my work with clients, the unveiling of Life Purpose is itself one of five pillars of an overarching process I call Augmented Humanity, where the ability to befriend oneself (another component) is a necessary prior or concomitant step. That’s because the act of digging into yourself and looking for answers can be very challenging unless we put on the hat of a researcher and use of our curiosity to reframe self-criticism to self-discovery.
Much like building a puzzle, pieces don’t necessarily become evident to us in a linear way. We might begin from different parts of the picture, but the joy in putting it together definitely outweighs the work. Life Purpose may not be the promised land, but it indeed is what makes life worth living.